Green Thumb Tip #18: Edit!

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The opening weeks of spring feel like a voyage of discovery as I wander around the garden noticing each plant unfolding.  I’m reminded of which Iris grow where as their buds show color and unfold.

Bits of perennials break ground and begin to grow, reminding me again of all the many players that co-exist in our summer garden.  With their faded remains cleaned up weeks ago, I had forgotten about more than a few.

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Saxifraga stolonifera, strawberry begonia, that I transplanted into a new bed last summer. These little perennials send out new plants on the end of each elongated stem, root where they land, and soon form a dense, blooming  ground cover.

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It is this tenacity that makes perennials, and woodies, so valuable in our gardens.  From a rooted slip, we may be rewarded with an impressive presence within only a few seasons.  Perennials tend to grow wider, taller, and more robust each year; if they are happy in their spot; as they fulfill their genetic potential.

As with all plants, their genetic imperative is to persist and procreate.  While annuals focus on ripening seeds, many perennials focus their energy on expanding their roots and crowns and sending up clonal babies from their roots or rhizomes.  That’s not to say that many perennials don’t produce copious amounts of seed, as well.

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Beautiful comphrey sets seeds and expands, vigorously sprouting new plants all around the original.  It is as tenacious as it is beautiful.  A healing herb, it is a good and resilient perennial.

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As the garden awakens each year, we discover not only those things that we lovingly planted; we also find a plethora of ‘nature sown’ plants of all descriptions vying for the real-estate in our yard.  Some we welcome; some we don’t, and some may leave us curiously searching through our field guides and gardening books to know them.

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A garden is a uniquely human construct.  Although it has its ‘wild side,’ its purpose is to please us and welcome us within its paths and places.  It is a garden and not a wild space precisely because we have the prerogative to both plant it and to edit it, shaping it into a living manifestation of our vision.

That is why I keep these three things in the pockets of my gardening vest, and a fourth close at hand:  a knife, scissors, secateurs, and a narrow trowel.  It is easiest to ‘edit’ our gardens in early spring, right as plants make their debut.

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Autumn fern returns reliably each spring, with sculptural bronze fronds that slowly turn green after opening.

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I call it ‘editing,’ but you may call it ‘weeding.’  And there is a bit of discussion in the books I’m reading lately on proper technique.

Landscape designers with a background in ecology recommend cutting an unwanted plant at its base, while leaving the soil ‘undisturbed.’  They observe that any disturbance to the soil  allows dormant seeds the conditions to sprout at the surface.  This creates an on going cycle of pulling out newly sprouted ‘weeds.’  In theory, every time you cut the plant back it weakens it.  When it isn’t able to out-compete its growing neighbors for light and air, it eventually gives up.

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Yes, following this advice has found me on my knees gamely cutting out fresh grasses with scissors from among my ferns.  In the cool of spring, I am perhaps more patient than I’ll be in July.

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Newly planted Siberian Iris and Salvia have room to grow, now.  But the Vinca minor will soon surround them if I don’t control it.  Roses, Monarda, peonies, various ferns,  Astilbe, cut leaf coneflower, Echinacea and other Iris also share this bed, which makes it a challenging one to ‘edit.’

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Some of these mis-placed ‘nature sown’ plants aren’t weeds, though.  They are valuable perennials spreading ever further afield with each passing season.  Whether I planted them or not, I try to consider what to do with each.  Leave it to further colonize?  Move it?  Dig it, pot it, and give it away?  As our garden fills more and more each season, these decisions take on increased urgency.

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A tiny Aralia spinosa opens its first leaves in among the Vinca.  Left alone, it will grow into a tall, thorny tree.  There is only room for one, and all of these clones from its roots must go.

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Our Aralia spinosa, a native tree, wants the entire front shrub border.  Like a miscreant bamboo, it extensive roots send up cute little baby trees every night.  And almost daily, I’m wading through the Vinca to spot them and break them off.  They are still tender, and their thorns haven’t hardened yet.  If I let them go for more than a few days, it requires the secateurs to nip them.

And I’m also finding spindly dogwood trees and redbud trees leafing out in my perennial beds.  They obviously emerged and grew last summer under cover of something else.   There are also a variety of other, larger tree seedlings like Magnolia, sweet gum, poplar, oak and native holly.

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A seedling dogwood tree has emerged from this clump of Iris.  Left to grow, it will soon cast shade on the  Iris and other perennials  in this sunny bed.

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Left un-edited, our front garden would soon revert to its native state:  woodland.  There are plenty of wild seeds in the surrounding ravines, meadows and marshes, and plenty of birds and small mammals to plant them in our garden.  Do I want all of these natives randomly growing here?

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I allowed a pokeweed several summers ago.  It blooms with attractive white flowers and follows up with wild-life friendly purple berries in late summer.  It returns and tries to spread each year, and topped out last September at nearly 15′.  Trouble is, it is also shading out things we planted and value.  A choice must be made, and so this spring I’m pruning out every opportunistic shoot of it that emerges.

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Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, feeds songbirds for many months each fall.  It also grows tall and weedy, expanding with each passing year into a dense, herbaceous thicket.

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The great challenge of gardening with a mixed palette of native plants and imported or hybridized cultivars lies in finding the balance, and then maintaining a pleasing harmony.  For landscape designers, with several acres to fill with a natural looking selection of grasses, perennials, and woodies; plants that will spread themselves may be highly desirable.

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Solidago, goldenrod, colonizes this meadow in the national park at Yorktown VA in September.  It is colonizing our garden, too, and must be controlled.

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They may appreciate the help when thousands of plants are needed for an installation to look lush.  I’ve read bits of advice in their books about establishing ‘colonies’ that will spread, and planting perennials that produce air borne seeds on the side of the garden where the prevailing winds will help to spread them.

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I encourage this groundcover Ajuga to spread because it is attractive and crowds out grasses and other weeds.  It is stunning in bloom, and spreads prolifically by runners.  Lysimachia, creeping Jenny, is another useful groundcover that we encourage in sunny parts of the garden.

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This can be helpful in a new garden where the gardener must work with a budget.  Yet there is another face to consider. 

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As the days heat up and muggy summer sets in, I’ll be far less enthusiastic and thorough in my ‘editing.’

There will be mayflies, ticks and mosquitoes lying in wait in all the damp and shady places.  The beds will fill as all of our perennials grow taller and denser.  The paths will narrow and plants will weave a fine, leafy tapestry one with another.   I’ll be distracted by butterflies and forget to prune and keep order in the garden.

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August, when the garden has grown lush and full.

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So April is the time to ‘edit’ the garden; ruthlessly.  Invoke imagination to visualize the full grown size of things, and how one will influence another.

As various plants grow together, will they cooperate or compete?  Is there succession in your design, a natural layering in time and space; or will something precious get out-muscled by an enthusiastic neighbor?

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Now is the time to assert the gardener’s vision with discipline and care.  Edit out those plants which can’t fit into your plan, and find a friend who will give them a home elsewhere, or recycle them as compost.  The choice is ours.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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What I’m reading this week:
“Planting has to please people- as has been said before, people are part of the ecology too.  The point has been made by others that in order for natural environments to be valued by humans they have to be liked- simply functional plantings which satisfy technical criteria for sustainability or biodiversity but do not satisfy human users are in the long run doomed, because nobody will care for them enough to campaign for them when they are threatened by other potential users on this overcrowded planet or simply through lack of care.
Noel Kingsbury from Planting:  A New Perspective

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “Green Thumb Tip #18: Edit!

  1. Cutting the plant right to the base works, at times i wait until they are in flower to weaken it even more, being careful the flower does not set seed. However i never do it with grass, it seems to stimulate it more.
    Lots of them wild plants can be used as herbal remedies for the garden.

  2. ‘Editing’ is a good term for it. This year I’m ‘ruthlessly’ dividing perennials that have grown too big for their space allotted. There is always something in the garden that needs tending!

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